Rudolf Diesel (1858 – 1913)

In the course of the 20th century the diesel engine became the principal means of propelling seagoing ships, heavy lorries and motor coaches, and was widely used on railways, for passenger cars, and as a means of generating electricity. It was named after Rudolph Diesel who was principally responsible for its widespread use, although Herbert Akroyd Stuard (1864-1927) was probably the first to demonstrate the basic principle of the compression-ignition engine, which had no sparking plug, and could be operated with fuels that were cheaper than petrol.


Diesel was born in Paris, the son of a Bavarian leather craftsman, and was educated at the Technische Hochschule, Munich. For some years his patron was Carl von Linde, pioneer of refrigeration, for whom he worked in Winterthur, then in Paris and in Berlin. His first experiments with an engine were in Paris in 1885, and he was granted a patent in Germany in 1892. In 1893 he published papers explaining the principles of the engine, and on 10 August 1893 it was demonstrated in Augsburg by Maschineenfabrik Augsburg (the company that became MAN in 1906), who had contributed to its development, as had Friedrich Krupp of Essen.


Diesel died in mysterious circumstances in 1913, while crossing the North Sea on a ferry between Antwerp and Harwich. The diesel engine had first been used to power a ship in 1903, and there was sensitivity about its potential in submarine warships. The engine was first applied to a railway locomotive in 1913, by the Sulzer company in Winterthur, and in 1924 MAN demonstrated a diesel-powered motor truck at the Berlin Motor Fair. Mercedes Benz built the first passenger cars with diesel engines in 1936.